Seeing the ‘Gothic’

William Havergal Brian’s Symphony No 1, the “Gothic,” is the largest music ever written. True, it’s not as long as Wagner’s operas, or John Cage’s 639-year-long organ piece “As Slow as Possible” in which tones are held using weights, but the Gothic Symphony is hard to argue against. It lasts very nearly two hours with nary a significant pause and no intermission. The performers are as follows: two complete symphony orchestras, a host of exotic instruments like the pedal clarinet, bass oboe, basset horn, oboe d’amore, bass trumpet, contrabass trombone, two each of tubas and euphoniums, 24 percussion players including six timpanists, two tambourines, a “thunder machine” and a “bird scare,” an organ, soprano, alto, tenor, bass, six adult choirs, three children’s choirs (near the end of the symphony the voices will sing 32 different parts at once), and four brass bands stashed away in different areas around and outside the concert hall, each with their own set of drums.

The Gothic Symphony has been performed, in full, six times. It has been recorded for CD just once, in 1989 by the Slovak Philharmonic and Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestras, who were hampered by the fact that some of the instruments required didn’t actually exist in Slovakia.

The most recent performance of the Gothic was on 17 July, 2011, before a sold-out crowd at Royal Albert Hall, London. Over one thousand performers were there. So was I.

Pictured: slightly under half (!) of the singers for the Gothic Symphony, from my vantage point in the front of the standing room.

I came expecting at best a loudly transcendent experience and at worst the ability to tell people I’d seen the world’s largest symphony. But–good lord–it was the concert of a lifetime.

The Gothic Symphony begins with a sort of thirteen-minute overture to warm the orchestra up; it starts with a theme that sounds rather unhappily like Mahler-meets-Jaws but then slides into a gorgeous melody for solo violin. And that’s when my expectations started to recalibrate themselves: this monster music is capable of extraordinary tenderness, sensitivity, even fragility. There were moments so still, so haunting, that I was afraid if I swallowed the BBC Radio microphones would hear it.

The second movement is a particularly moving funeral march, but not a dirge; it sort of bustles and screams and flails about in pain before a despairing transition to the third movement, vivace, which despite the marking took its time getting interesting.

Then, nine minutes in, all hell broke loose. And by “all hell,” I mean the xylophone. Havergal Brian inserts a 90-second-long xylophone solo, an absolutely MAD solo which begins with an interesting little tune, trades the spotlight with a couple other instruments, and then takes one extremely fast, trippy riff and repeats it over and over and over, while the entire rest of the orchestra sadistically eggs it on, a bit like an exhausted dancer trying to move faster and faster as the audience demands more. I had a clear view of the xylophonist and my eyes nearly popped out of my head in amazement. Click here to listen to the solo as played at the Prom. [The xylophonist is Chris Stock, principal percussionist to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. My thanks to commenter Ferme84 for letting me know!] Then the orchestra cuts back in–a harrowing climax is reached–the lights go up–at the point of greatest crisis, the organ acts as a giant gear-shifter plunging the music into a terrifying new key–the hundreds of singers stand on cue–there is a pause of maybe a second, and then everyone begins to sing. The experience is pure magic.

Like Beethoven’s Ninth, Brian’s “Gothic” has a choral finale; however, this being the world’s biggest symphony, the choral finale is as long as all of Beethoven’s Ninth. Possibly the most astonishing part is the fifteen-minute long section devoted to “Judex crederis esse venturus”, just four words repeated over and over by everybody as the choir divides into smaller and smaller sections. In a way it was like watching tennis: singers across the hall from each other echoed lines as if in reply, and new appearances of “Judex” kept popping up everywhere, until a surprise clutch of trumpets revealed themselves up at the highest point of the Royal Albert Hall gallery, the four brass bands and percussion roared to life in the hall itself, and for the first time in my life music physically surrounded me. All this roared to an unspeakably glorious conclusion, drummers pounding away on three sides, trumpets and trombones blasting into both ear canals, all the eccentric percussion instruments (thunder machine, bird scare!) in action, one of the choir members near me singing so hard it looked like his teeth would fall out, every performer in the hall landing on the final chord all at once. As it all echoed into silence I turned and noticed a young man standing near me: his eyes wide as cupcakes, his mouth hanging open in a gigantic disbelieving grin. Up on stage, the mezzo-soprano Christine Rice felt the same way: an enormous uncontrollable smile tore across her face and she looked down, hand raised in vain to hide her teeth, unable to contain herself. We were all thinking the same thing: I can’t believe I heard that. I can’t believe this music exists.

And that wasn’t even the finale; there was over a half-hour to go. In it Havergal Brian brilliantly resurrected all the prior themes from the symphony: the Jaws tune, the xylophone solo, and others, and it suddenly became clear just how brilliant the structure had been. He assigns each motive its own instrument–one of the major ones is a rhythm for dueling timpanists–so that, in the finale, all can appear in congress as part of a mad explosion of sound. Not that mad explosions are the norm; there must be a solid twenty minutes of a cappella singing in the symphony, all of it achingly beautiful and some of it nearly medieval in its simplicity of harmony. So it is fitting that, after a final peroration of ferocious raw power from all the orchestra and extra brass, suddenly the music should give way to–what is this?–a quiet ending, the choir by themselves now, up in the clouds somewhere, with the final words (“…in aeternam”) fading off so heavenly into the dark.

Another pre-performance photo.

The audience was stunned, and many of the performers too. Conductor Martyn Brabbins silently asked for, and got, a half-minute of absolute quiet before the floodgates of applause finally broke. And floodgates they were: there was a deafening roar, foot-stomping, a flamboyantly gay man shouting “Marvelous!”, and yes, there were two slow-claps. The choir all applauded Brabbins, who very modestly turned and applauded the audience.

There are a great many levels of astonishment and excitement to register here, too many to really write about. The technical proficiency of the performance: the cymbal guy dropped one on the floor for an amusing crash, and the strings were pretty scrappy at the very beginning, but for most of the work I kept thinking, “shouldn’t this be sloppier? shouldn’t there be more mistakes?” Xylophonist Chris Stock: he ought to be given some sort of award for Best Proms Musician 2011. The absolute control of Martyn Brabbins: that only one conductor is needed is beyond me, but his style, which has been described as “anti-maestro,” didn’t just keep the ensemble together, it also presented the music in an extremely positive light.

The music itself: is the Gothic perfect? No. There are some dull stretches, and a few moments where I grew slightly impatient with the intrusion of new material bogging down the works; it probably doesn’t need to be 1 hour 47 minutes long (as it was Sunday night). But the grandness of the design–the unshakeable determination of the music to get from the starting point to the end–and the numerous passages, loud and quiet, of eye-popping white-hot inspiration–there are emotions and experiences and thrills here which cannot be heard or had anywhere else. I spent most of the symphony smiling in disbelief. The man next to me spent some of it in tears. It’s that kind of music.

So I came to the Gothic Symphony expecting to hear a lot of loudness, a lot of madness, and maybe a glint of genius. There was indeed loudness, and the symphony’s creator may indeed have been off his rocker. But it was excitingly easy to hear the other thing, too.

I didn't take this photo, but I'm in it somewhere at the very bottom, to the right of the conductor. Click to expand. The big orange doohickey behind the harps is the "bird scare," which apparently is pretty much a rotatable oil drum filled with metal objects.

14 Comments

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14 responses to “Seeing the ‘Gothic’

  1. Brian – you did with Brian and this performance what David Foster Wallace did with Federer. I stand in awe. God, is Brian (the other one) lucky! I am very moved.

  2. Great review Brian. It may be surprising that you should only need one conductor for this work, but I can lay claim to being one of the few people to have “sub-conducted” the Gothic: in rehearsals at Brisbane the children’s chorus were continually behind the beat during their short contribution to the Te ergo, so in the absence of the children’s own conductor or minders being available, and the chorusmaster being needed in the technical box off-stage, in the performance I conducted thirteen bars of the piece directly for the benefit of the children to keep them in time.

  3. Colin Mackie

    As I was fully and confidently expecting….a really first-class and su[premely well-written review!

  4. Robert Matthew-Walker

    I don’t know who you are, but your comments are admirable – an overwhelming experience which we shall never see again. Nor, no matter how long we live, will we ever hear a finer performance of this truly great work – the only performance to have been given with the full complement of musicians taking part as Brian asked for (all others have been with slightly reduced forces). So much mroe insightful than the crap which I am told has appeared in the UK national press, writtng by people who are simply not up to the standrd of the music they purport ot write about. Well done!

  5. Ian Rutt

    I echo Robert Matthew-Walker’s comments: an admirable review! I too was in the arena on Sunday evening, but I couldn’t have described the experience as well as you have here.

  6. Sir Ted Fairyspear

    Finally…..someone who sees something positive and awe-inspiring in this Symphony. Most reviewers and critics almost seem to feel they HAVE to rubbish the piece simply because it’s so big, so lengthy and attempts so much – and we Brits don’t like anything like that, do we? “It’s so VULGAR, dear boy……doesn’t the chap know how to use RESTRAINT? Gosh, there wasn’t even a TUNE we could hum along to afterwards!” These sort of comments were made about Elgar’s music in its day, and probably for the same reasons: it makes us feel uncomfortable.

    The Gothic is, inevitably, fascinating but flawed. How could such a vast conception turn out otherwise? There are good reasons to believe that Brian never even intended the work to be performed; it was quite possibly his way of exorcising his demons at the lowest point in his life.

    But the work obviously meant so much to Brian, and he invested so much time and effort in composing it, that the least critics could do is to listen to it with some respect. I don’t mind negative criticism – we’re all entitled to our opinions about this music – but I do object to some of the flippant knee-jerk reactions that have appeared in the musical press. Some critics have even managed to produce their damning condemnation of The Gothic after listening to a few minutes’ worth on Radio 3!

  7. Ferme84

    The xylophone player was Chris Stock, the Principal Percussionist of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. I was one of the other percussionists onstage and we were all completely in awe of his playing, not just in the performance itself but in every rehearsal.

  8. John Fro

    Bravo!

    Any before-after comments about the work from any of the performers?

  9. Very impressed with this review (for us poor unfortunates who could not witness what must have been an earth-shaking experience) and also with your website in general – how nice to find such expressive and articulate writing!

  10. Michael Cattermole

    Many thanks for your well-considered views of this great work and the astonishing performance we witnessed. I too think the performance was probably the best the work has ever received, and Martyn Brabbins deserves a medal for galvanising the huges forces involved. I posted the following few lines of comment on the BBC’s Proms website a few days after the event – “Let’s hope the BBC Music Magazine will issue the performance on cd at some time in the near future. This would surely go some way to compensate for the BBC’s failure to televise this astonishing event. Or perhaps they could at least license the recording to a company such as Chandos so it can be released commercially(?)”. I hope you and your readers will agree with my sentiments. Once again, many thanks for your valuable insights into an overwhelming occasion.

  11. Gaynor

    I meant to comment on this a month ago, but lost the link!
    The review is so good that when I read “the lights go up–at the point of greatest crisis, the organ acts as a giant gear-shifter plunging the music into a terrifying new key–the hundreds of singers stand on cue–there is a pause of maybe a second, and then everyone begins to sing” goosepimples appeared on my arms.
    I was one of those who began to sing. An awesome experience. I also had the good fortune to be standing behind the xylophone player – we all looked at each other when he began to play and our jaws dropped!

  12. Excellent review. If you will go to my website (www.alandeanfoster.com) and click on the latest update, you will see some video taken during the final rehearsal. I only wish there was more.

  13. Pingback: Don’t Worry, Be Happy | bgreinhart

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